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When 10-year-old Nujood and nine-year-old Arwa came forward and asked Yemeni courts to divorce them from their husbands, their stories sparked a media uproar and helped spur a movement to ban child marriages in the conservative, tribal-based Yemeni society.
An Aug. 15 article in Gulf News reported that both girls had been married off to older men and were complaining to the courts of sexual and physical abuse. Nujood’s is a landmark legal case, as she is the first Yemeni child to ask a court to grant her a divorce.
Although deeply rooted in traditional Yemeni society, child marriages have rarely received exposure. Marriage disputes are traditionally resolved privately, without court interference.
Critics hope that Nujood’s and Arwa’s stories will increase pressure on the Yemeni government to ban child marriages.
“Voices are rising in society against this phenomenon and its catastrophes,” Shawki al-Qadhi, a Parliament opposition member told The New York Times in a June 29 article. “But despite rejections of it by many people, it continues.”
A 2007 study by Sanaa University found that 52 percent of Yemeni girls under the age of 15 were married.
According to an August 3, 2008 article by humanitarian news source IRIN, Yemen’s National Women’s Committee (NWC) has proposed a minimum legal age for marriage, as well as a one-year jail sentence or a 100,000 riyal ($500 [USD]) fine for those who violate the legal minimum.
Deputy Head of the NWC Horiah Mash-hor told IRIN that the 1994 Personal Status Law, originally set the minimum marriage age at 15, but was amended in 1999 without stipulating a minimum age.
“It only authorises the girl's guardian to decide whether she is physically and psychologically prepared for marriage," Mash-hor said.
Mash-hor added that a minimum marriage age of 18 had been proposed since 2000, but the Yemeni Islamic Shari’a Codification Committee has repeatedly failed to present the amendments to parliament. She believes this delay may be due to pressure from influential traditional Yemeni figures who oppose such a decision.
“There are extreme groups in society and in parliament which are against amending the law,” she said.
According to a UNICEF online review of child marriages, poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family.
“They also may think that child marriage offers protection for their daughter from the dangers of sexual assault, or more generally, offers the care of a male guardian,” the report stated.
Both Nujood and Arwa come from poor families, and Arwa’s father agreed to marry her off after his two other daughters had been kidnapped and forcibly married. He told The New York Times that early marriage had seemed a better alternative for Arwa.
Child marriages also exist in Saudi Arabia where no marriage law specifies the legal minimum age. Although a woman's consent is legally required, many marriage officials do not seek it.
Recent media coverage of an 11-year-old boy’s engagement to his 10-year-old cousin sparked outrage among Saudi Arabian human rights activists and religious figures. The marriage has since been put on hold by the provincial governor, who deemed the parties too young to marry.
“These marriages violate international agreements the kingdom has signed,” said Zuhair Al Harithi of the Saudi Human Rights Commission in an Aug. 7 Associated Press report.
Although there are no official statistics on the number of child marriages in Saudi Arabia, critics believe the practice is widespread, and are asking the Saudi government to pass legislation setting a minimum age for marriage.
"When girls are married off at a young age they will be deprived of education and of enjoying their childhood," Suhaila Hammad of the National Society for Human Rights told AP. "Their bodies won't be able to tolerate pregnancy and delivering children."
Saudi Arabia’s top religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh has warned families against imposing their will for marriage upon their children.
“Islam has stipulated that both parties agree to the marriage contract,” he was quoted by AP as saying. “The woman must express real consent to the suitor, and a guardian must not impose his choice of husband on her.”